Many nations were conceived in the fiery crucible of war. Rising up against their oppressors, throwing off the shackles of bondage, opposing the unjust aggressions of a haughty foe.
Canada’s experience, as it turns out, may have been one of orderly transition from colony to dominion in 1867. But it would be on a windswept promontory that dominated a stretch of the Western Front in April 1917 when we earned the respect of our allies and the world, bought with the blood of thousands of our countrymen.
It was known as Vimy Ridge, and it was the moment when we would truly come to stand on our own as a nation and a people.
There are many who believe Canada’s path to true nationhood was not decided in musty halls in Charlottetown and Quebec City by the Fathers of Confederation. In the decades before WWI, Canada was still a fledgling nation, often regarded by more cosmopolitan peoples as a colonial backwater still hiding behind the skirts of the British Empire.
When Gavrilo Princip put a bullet in the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne in the summer of 1914 and touched off the conflagration we know today as WWI, previous perceptions about Canada, and the Canadians, began to change. Early on in the conflict, Canadians had acquired a reputation as tough fighters, ready to meet virtually any challenge — but by early 1917, the third year of the war — they had yet to secure a victory as one unified corps. Vimy Ridge would change all that. For the first time, the four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force would be fighting together to obtain a single objective.
And it was no small objective. An escarpment northeast of Arras forming one of the strongest German defensive positions on the Western Front, Vimy Ridge rises some 200 feet above the surrounding plains.
Canada’s allies had already been turned away from the ridge earlier in the war by stiff enemy opposition — France throughout 1915, Britain in 1916 — and no one really expected the Canadians to turn the tide when they arrived in their positions opposite the ridge in October 1916.
However, the Canadians had a new approach based on a mixture of technical and tactical innovation, meticulous planning, powerful artillery support and extensive training, much of it embodied in their commander Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng. The employment of a ‘creeping barrage’ — troops following behind a curtain of artillery fire with such precision that enemy troops were unable to react effectively — was a highly successful innovation that was later used to great effect in other battles.
In an epic struggle that lasted three days, with grit, heart, and determination, the Canadian Corps managed to achieve what no others had done before them. In the dawn that had preceded that victory, Canada had largely been regarded as a nation entirely British in all but name, a colonial lapdog nipping at the heels of empire. In all the dawns that would follow, the nation now had the respect of her peers and the unquestioned sovereignty of a victor.
But it was a costly sacrifice. When Canadian troops went over the top on April 9, 1917 many would never return home again. In losses that only now seem minuscule when cast against the greater canvas of the Great War, the Canadian Corps suffered 3,598 killed in action, and a further 7,004 wounded. Four Canadians would receive Victoria Crosses — the highest military decoration awarded to British and Commonwealth forces for valour — for their actions during the battle.
Years after the war, Canada commemorated the conflict with the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, dedicated in 1936 and described by Toronto architect and sculptor Walter Allward as a “sermon against the futility of war”. The monument is the centrepiece of a 100-hectare preserved battlefield park that encompasses a portion of the ground over which the Canadian Corps made their assault.
The commemoration at the memorial on Sunday for the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge will be attended by dignitaries including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Governor General David Johnston, Charles, Prince of Wales, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Prince Harry and President of France François Hollande — as well as many Canadians from coast to coast to coast.
Regarded today as a symbol of Canadian national achievement and sacrifice, the Battle of Vimy Ridge will continue to represent a moment when our nation stepped from the mists of her colonial past to stand tall as an equal among equals.
Lest we forget.